Teresa Baker: Diversity One # at a Time
This story appears in the June 27, 2016 print edition of High Country News. Clicking on an image will launch a full-sized viewer.
by Glenn Nelson
During the past three years, Teresa Baker of Martinez, Calif., has organized some of the most significant events in the movement to diversify and improve inclusion in the outdoors: The African American National Parks Event, the Buffalo Soldiers Trail Retracing, the Muir Campfire Discussion on Relevancy and Inclusion in Outdoor Organizations, and the Convening on Relevancy and Inclusion in Outdoor Organizations.
Her latest brainchild, Hike Like a Girl, a campaign to encourage females to take the trails, solo or in groups, took place on May 14 with a familiar formula: Working with partner organizations, Baker encourages people to engage in outdoor activities on a certain day (or days), then record, post and hashtag on social media to raise further awareness.
Recently featured as one of Patagonia’s Women Active Activists, Baker is a former high-school point guard and former Outdoor Afro, a national network that uses meetups and education to encourage African Americans to get outside. She since has evolved into a force of one. She says her mother didn’t like her “being defiant and going against the grain as a girl,” but adds, “My dad told me daily, that I could not back down to anyone or I would do it for the rest of my life. So he encouraged me to speak up and not be afraid to live my true life.”
High Country News Most people of color don’t have a background in the outdoors growing up, but that wasn’t the case with you, was it?
Teresa Baker: I was the only girl in a family of eight boys and was determined not to be outdone by anything my brothers did. So when they went hiking, I went hiking; when they played basketball, I played basketball. When they and the other guys in the neighborhood would talk trash about how girls weren’t capable of keeping up with guys, I’d prove them wrong. That’s where my love of the outdoors began. We lived directly across from a city park, so every day we were outdoors with other neighborhood kids, playing every sport imaginable, but my favorite by far was hiking.
I was part of an after-school program where we would go hiking in Tilden Park almost every week. We would also visit a ranch that belonged to the owners of the program. There we learned how to care for animals and the land. We would ride horses and hike the surrounding area. I absolutely loved it and to this day reminisce on how at peace I felt out on this ranch.
In 1978 my mother made me join the Girl’s Club, which I fought tooth and nail. I didn’t want to be around a bunch of girls who would probably not embrace my love of the outdoors. I was only partially right. In the summer of 1979, we went to Yosemite National Park for my first official camping trip. That was it for me; I fell in love with Yosemite and have remained so to this very day.
HCN What inspired you to start the African American National Park Event?
TB I take off for Yosemite at the drop of a dime, no long-term planning needed. On one of my Yosemite visits in 2012, I started to take notice of how many African Americans I encountered. At the end of my second day in the park, I had not seen one other African American. I started to research people of color in our national parks – not just in visitation, but in the makeup of the National Park Service. The lack of diversity was surprising because I had never really paid much attention to it. The next year, I created an event to encourage African American communities across the country to get outdoors in a national park site during the month of June. The larger concern is that if we don’t start creating welcoming environments in the outdoors for people of color, in 20 years when the majority demographic in this country is black and brown faces, no one will be around to care about these open spaces. That’s the urgency of this issue.
The involvement I have now with the outdoors wasn’t planned. I simply wanted to create an event to get people of color outdoors. That turned in to talking engagements and written article after article about the lack of diversity in our national parks. That’s how I ended up doing this work, I feel it is my calling. It’s certainly my passion. And connecting with others who are just as passionate about this work has been an honor. I’m committed to the challenges that are ahead of me and will work diligently to bring about a change that will last beyond my lifetime.
HCN The Buffalo Soldiers are important to the history of both African Americans and the National Park Service because, as all-black troops in the 9th Cavalry Regiment and 24th Infantry, they were among the nation’s first park rangers, patrolling Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in 1899, 1903 and 1904. Their commanding officer, Capt. Charles Young, was the first African American park superintendent, at Sequoia in 1903. What led you to retracing the Buffalo Soldiers’ route from the Presidio, where they once were garrisoned, to Yosemite?
TB After several visits to the Presidio of San Francisco, I started to learn about the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers. I read about their participation in the military and how they were actually stationed right here in the Bay Area. Then I saw a documentary about Yosemite ranger Shelton Johnson and how he portrayed Buffalo Soldiers in the High Sierras. This was life-changing for me. Here I am, in love with Yosemite and concerned with the lack of African Americans in our national parks, then one day I find out the very first rangers in our national parks were African Americans. I was beside myself with pride and curiosity. In 2013, as an Outdoor Afro leader, I went to the Presidio and asked the park service if they would work with me on putting together a program to honor the Buffalo Soldiers at the Presidio. They agreed and my commitment to telling their story began.
TB Robert Hanna, the great, great grandson of John Muir was on the retracing and I had hoped we’d get in a hike together while in Yosemite, but that didn’t happen. Later, while talking to Robert and Kelli English of the National Park Service about partnering for a John Muir weekend in Yosemite, talk by others started about Muir no longer being relevant in the conservation movement. I suggested making the weekend about relevancy and inclusion in the outdoors, because I felt people were absolutely in the wrong about Muir. We first partnered with the Sierra Club, for obvious reasons. Yosemite offered us their volunteer campground in exchange for a service project, which was really cool. We spent three days in the park with outdoor organizations and agencies, talking about ways to be more inclusive in our work and how to make our efforts relevant to the larger picture of the lack of diversity in agencies such as the NPS.
One of the larger takeaways from the gathering was that The Muir Project film crew joined us and filmed our time in the park. Their video, Diversity and Inclusion in our Wild Spaces, was picked up by the Wild & Scenic Film Festival and is now making its way around the country.
HCN Your latest inspiration was Hike Like a Girl. How did you come up with that?
TB I wrote about solo hiking as a woman in my blog, African American Explorations. Women from across the country reached out to me about the article, expressing their desire to do solo hikes. They just needed a push to get beyond their fears. So I put together this campaign in order to inspire women to get out on the trails for their first solo hike, or to hike with friends and family. There is power in numbers and the psychological effect knowing that other women across the country also are hiking in support of one another is huge. For me hiking solo is where it’s at. There are no lengthy conversations to take your concentration off the road ahead, so you notice every little detail and every little sound. It’s magical. It’s a connection that you miss when you’re hiking in a crowd.
HCN What’s your assessment of where we are in this work?
TB I think we are making strides in our efforts to engage communities of color in outdoor spaces. It will take our collective efforts to continue the progress we have started. The National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the various outdoor organizations and community organization will need to make this a priority. Mainstream outdoor retailers really need to step up – we need to start seeing faces of color in their advertisements and in their stores. It’s important to not only hear from retailers that diversity is important, we need to see it in the work they do to demonstrate it. Once we began to see black and brown faces regularly atop billboards for athletic clothing and equipment, that will send the message that every face matters, every voice matters, and we can finally put to rest the falsehood that people of color are not relevant forces in the outdoors.